Romans 4:13-25 (NRSV)
For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation. For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”) – in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become “the father of many nations,” according to what was said, “So numerous shall your descendants be.” He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. Therefore his faith “was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Now the words, “it was reckoned to him,” were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.
The Lectionary readings for this second Sunday in Lent include God’s “everlasting covenant” with Abraham and his offspring in Genesis 17, and the verses in Psalm 22 that say, “Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it.” It is not surprising, then, that the above passage from Romans is also included among these readings for this week. What I am trying to sort out for myself is how these fit into a Lenten theme.
In this passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans he reinforces the belief that righteousness is through faith. Expressed in the previous chapter, Paul lifts up the faith of Abraham as distinct from adherence to the law or justification through works. It is because of Abraham’s faith that “the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants.”
In whatever way Lent has been recognized and defined since it became fixed at forty days in the fourth century, it always seems to have been about self-examination, penitence, fasting, and denial as the means of placing Jesus at the center of our lives in preparation for Good Friday and Easter. But then again, you get to choose your own observance. [“What did you give up for Lent?” “I gave up chocolate.” “… soft drinks.” “… meat.” And so it goes, except on Sundays.] Like so many things in life, when it is left up to us we can make it fit our own level of inconvenience.
Over the years, I have tried to determine if those of us who do observe Lent are really doing so out of a sense of obligation or adherence to rules, or just habit. Does it really matter? After all, there are numerous Christian denominations that barely acknowledge Ash Wednesday and Lent. This kind of thinking gets me nowhere in my search for relevance to God’s “everlasting covenant” with Abraham.
I can’t leave it there, and find myself compelled to accept that these days we set aside are of God, and the various personal disciplines and devotions we pursue during these days move our hearts toward the recognition of our rebirth in Christ through baptism. So in the act of giving something up we are actually taking something on. Through our individual choices we are taking on Christ, who is the church, and together with other people who have chosen their own form of Lenten observance we become in our time a manifestation of God’s covenant relationship with the children of Abraham as well as with those “who believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead.”
This is a powerful legacy, wherein our annual Lenten expressions and those of believers who continue beyond our time will fulfill the scriptures in proclaiming Jesus as Lord for future generations to come, which through faith will achieve the promise that rests on grace.
Gracious and loving God, we give thanks for those who have gone before us in faith, and pray that as our devotional commitments during this season bring Jesus to the center of our lives they may also serve as a continual witness to your saving grace in the death and resurrection of your Son, our Lord, for generations yet unborn. Amen.